What’s Going On With This Story About Trump Lifting a Gag Order?

You might be hearing stories about how the president pressured the Department of Justice to lift a so-called “gag order” on an informant involved in the Russian uranium scandal. As ethics czar in the Obama administration Norm Eisen suggests, there are rules that prohibit that kind of thing.

But who is this informant and what light can he shed on the current controversies? The way the story is being reported in the media is terribly confusing. Here is how CNN described it:

President Donald Trump made it clear he wanted the gag order lifted on an undercover informant who played a critical role in an FBI investigation into Russian efforts to gain influence in the uranium industry in the United States during the Obama administration, according to two sources familiar with the President’s actions.

In order to understand what’s going on, you have to know that there are actually two Russia uranium stories.

  1. In 2010, a Russian firm bought controlling interests in Uranium One, a Canadian company that owned about 20 percent of U.S. uranium capacity. That deal had to be approved by the nine federal departments that are part of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, including the State Department.
  2. From about 2007 until 2014, the FBI investigated a racketeering scheme involving a Russian named Vadim Mikron, who supervised the shipment of uranium to the United States that was primarily extracted from decommissioned nuclear warheads. The investigation was focused on bribes and kickbacks he extorted from U.S. contractors involved in transporting the uranium.

The first Russia uranium story was peddled by Peter Schweizer in his book Clinton Cash as some kind of pay-for-play scheme involving the Clinton Foundation. It was eventually debunked by fact-checkers at sites like  PoliticFact, the Washington Post, and Snopes.

The second Russia uranium story was recently revived by John Solomon. As part of the FBI investigation, a confidential informant was recruited from one of the transportation companies involved with Mikron. He signed a non-disclosure agreement about his role in the investigation, from which he has now been released.

The only tie between the first story and the second is that Solomon attempted to suggest that the FBI should have told officials on the Committee on Foreign Investment about their investigation when they were considering approval for sale of controlling interests in Uranium One. So the idea that the confidential informant involved in that investigation has anything relevant to say when it comes to the trumped up charges we’re hearing thrown around these days (especially in regards to the debunked Clinton Cash story) is preposterous.

If that is the case, you might be wondering why Trump felt the need to intervene and right wingers are making such a big deal about this so-called “gag order.” I would suggest that it’s part of the play we’ve seen many times before. Here is how Paul Waldman described it:

It has three essential components. The first is the cranking up of the conservative calliope: all of the right’s information sources, from Fox News to conservative talk radio to web sites like Breitbart and Drudge, immediately begin shouting about the same story and repeating the same line. Then to keep it going and force mainstream media to cover it, they create an official “investigation” that will provide a steady stream of tantalizing leaks and events that can become the occasion of news coverage, even if it all ends up proving nothing. Then the whole narrative gets validated by top-level Republicans whose words are news in and of themselves.

The intricacies of these two separate Russia uranium stories are complex. As we see in the CNN quote up above, even media outlets haven’t done their homework to understand the distinctions, much less most news consumers. And while those media outlets are aware of the fact that the Clinton Cash story has been thoroughly debunked, they see news in the idea about this “gag order” and feel compelled to report about it as yet more hype about the whole “Clinton/Russia uranium story.” That is how they “provide a steady stream of tantalizing leaks and events that can become the occasion of news stories, even if it all ends up proving nothing.”

What we are watching is a good example of how the right wing weaponizes a story, particularly one that distracts from the Russia investigation.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.